Meet a Specialist: Courtney L. Ondeck, M.D., MPhil

Headshot of Dr. Courtney OndeckIn many situations, patients who need surgery only see their surgeon to have their procedure, and then they return to their regular doctors. Dr. Courtney L. Ondeck chose ophthalmology because she preferred to work with patients long term, not just in the operating room.

“I wanted to take ownership of the curative process by being able to see patients in clinic, diagnose their condition, perform corrective surgery, if needed, and follow them over time,” she explains. “Ophthalmology affords me the opportunity to form long-lasting doctor/patient relationships and gain an in-depth knowledge of my patients, which I believe results in better patient outcomes.”

Dr. Ondeck specializes in glaucoma and cataract surgery at Mass. Eye and Ear. She finds the transformative nature of eye surgery extremely inspiring.

“We all rely so heavily on our eyesight. By performing delicate, intricate ophthalmic procedures, ophthalmologists can improve patients’ vision and even prevent visual impairment. When we bring back lost vision for patients with cataracts, for example, we can help them regain their livelihood or hobbies, enhance relationships with their families and friends, and restore their perception of the world. That impact has inspired my career and continues to drive my work to develop new ophthalmic therapies.”

Fighting the Leading Cause of Blindness

Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in the world. This disease occurs when pressure is too high inside the eye; left untreated, this eventually causes damage to the optic nerve, causing impaired vision and blindness. In most cases, patients have no symptoms until glaucoma has reached an advanced stage.

Dr. Ondeck is very passionate about helping patients with glaucoma to improve or preserve their vision. She develops a plan that works best for each patient. This requires in-depth knowledge and experience with medications, laser treatment, minimally invasive glaucoma surgeries (MIGS), and other procedures, such as trabeculectomy or glaucoma drainage device implantation.

Glaucoma is chronic and progressive, so even after surgery or other treatments, doctors continue to monitor patients at regular office visits. As Dr. Ondeck explains, “During my time as a glaucoma specialist, I have learned that glaucoma requires many follow-up visits over the course of years. This leads to the development of long-term relationships with my patients and the families who care for them. Because patients may be using medications at home or weighing the best surgical options for their lifestyles, these relationships play a very important role in successful management of glaucoma.” 

Helping a Young Patient Feel Comfortable with Surgery

For Dr. Ondeck, caring for patients doesn’t just mean determining the best treatments. A very important component of care, she says, is to teach patients about their disease and make sure they feel comfortable with every aspect of their care. To be effective, she takes an individualized approach.

Dr. Ondeck describes a unique patient who inspired her: “Most patients with glaucoma are older, but some patients with early onset glaucoma are diagnosed before age 40. During my glaucoma fellowship training, I had a patient in her late 20s with very advanced glaucoma and inflammation. She was very worried about her decreasing vision, but she was also apprehensive about surgery. After many appointments and discussions, I was able to allay her fears, and she agreed it was best to have surgery. I always want to be on the same page as my patients, so I felt gratified that she was at peace with her decision to undergo surgery.”

“I implanted a glaucoma drainage device, and she was elated with the results. Her pressure was lowered to the point where she no longer needed her oral medication or the numerous eye drop medications she had needed to take throughout the day. Her quality of life improved greatly, and her day-to-day activities became much easier!”

Swapping Knowledge with Next-Generation Ophthalmologists

Rewarding patient experiences are just the kind of work that Dr. Ondeck hopes to pass along to ophthalmology residents at Mass. Eye and Ear and glaucoma fellows at VA Boston Healthcare in Jamaica Plain. She wants the new ophthalmologists to understand the importance of first connecting with patients, so as to develop the best treatment strategy for each individual patient and get the patient’s buy-in. Likewise, she appreciates what residents and fellows give back to her.

“I especially love working with trainees in clinic and in the operating room. I feel educating the next generation is a mutually beneficial relationship. Trainees challenge me to expand my thinking process and analyze my clinical decision-making, which ultimately makes me a stronger clinician.”

Putting Her Engineering Knowledge to Work

At Mass. Eye and Ear, Dr. Ondeck is helping develop new methods for early detection and treatment of glaucoma. One focus is to create medication delivery techniques and devices. Dr. Ondeck’s background in materials science engineering, nanotechnology, and polymer chemistry, combined with training in ophthalmology and glaucoma, make her uniquely suited for this challenge.

“Patients with glaucoma often use eye drops several times a day for life. It’s inconvenient, it can make eyes red and uncomfortable, and it’s usually challenging for patients,” Dr. Ondeck says. “Our goal is to free patients from using eye drops, so their glaucoma is controlled while they enjoy that all-important improved quality of life.”

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